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Annie Londonderry: the first woman to cycle the world

Annie Londonderry was not an ordinary woman of her time; she was a maverick, a daredevil, and a path-breaker. Born as Annie Cohen Kopchovsky in the 1870s in Latvia, she moved to Boston, USA, with her family as a young girl. She was subsequently married and settled into the life of a wife and mother, a traditional role for women during that era. However, Londonderry was anything but conventional.

The year was 1894, and a wager was proposed, challenging any woman to cycle around the globe within 15 months for a prize of $10,000. At a time when women’s mobility was heavily restricted, both literally and metaphorically, the challenge was considered preposterous. Undeterred by the enormity of the task, Annie, with little cycling experience, took up the dare. She adopted the name “Londonderry”, from her first major sponsor, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company, setting the stage for her audacious journey.

With a wardrobe consisting of a long skirt, a high-collar blouse, and a corset, Annie Londonderry embarked on her bicycle expedition. Her journey was anything but straightforward; it was punctuated by perilous terrain, physical hardship, hostile weather, and cultural prejudices. The incredulity of a woman cycling across nations and continents garnered significant attention, and she was often met with curiosity, suspicion, and, in many instances, outright incredulity.

Londonderry’s initial choice of a heavy 42-pound Columbia woman’s bicycle was soon replaced by a lighter Sterling men’s model, symbolising not just a pragmatic choice but also a dramatic shift in societal norms. She exchanged her cumbersome traditional attire for a more practical and, for that time, scandalously daring bloomer suit. This was more than a journey worldwide; it was a loud and powerful statement on gender boundaries.

Her adventure spanned 15 months, crossing countries like France, Egypt, Sri Lanka, and China, before returning to America, completing her tour in September 1895. Throughout her journey, Londonderry regaled the public with tales of hunting tigers in India, being mistaken for an influential man’s son in Japan, and facing highwaymen in France. The integrity of her stories was often questioned, but that did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of her audiences.

Annie Londonderry’s cycle tour was more than a physical journey; it was an exploratory endeavour on various fronts – sociocultural, gender norms, and personal limitations. She challenged the stereotypes of her time, breaking the restrictive boundaries imposed on women. Her journey was emblematic of the era’s growing women’s rights movement, symbolising the struggle for equality and freedom.

When Londonderry completed her journey, she was a changed woman, not only in her outlook but in her physical bearing. She had become a figure of inspiration and had shattered societal norms and gender boundaries. On her return, she wrote a series of articles about her journey, further challenging the societal expectations of women’s roles. There is a book – Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride by Peter Zheutlin that is worth checking out.

Annie Londonderry remains an unsung hero in the annals of history. Her audacious cycle tour around the world challenged the established norms, broke boundaries, and created a pathway for other women to follow. It is in the spirit of explorers like Londonderry that we continue to break barriers, redefine gender norms, and strive towards a society of equal opportunities. It is high time we recognise and celebrate the daring diva of the bicycle, Annie Londonderry.